Watani talks to Adeeb Joudeh, the custodian of the keys of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
There can be no two questions about what Christians the world over regard as the holiest site on earth, that which embodies a tangible component of their faith and creed of Redemption and Salvation. This is no other than the place where Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Today the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built by Emperor Constantine the Great in AD 330, houses these sites.
Dubbed the “Church of the Resurrection” by Eastern Christians, it stands within the walled Old City of Jerusalem, and is a complex of cave-like rooms, winding corridors, a soaring domed roof, and ornate decorations alongside broken furniture.
The very fact that it is home to the holiest site in Christendom has rendered the church and every spot in it subjects of conflict among the various Christian sects and Churches. The drive to be in control of anything and everything that bore the vestiges of Christ’s most holy last days became so vicious that, in the 19th century, the Ottomans who were then in control of the region, stipulated the status quo. This was a decree—still in force today—that confirmed beyond future change the rights of every Church or sect to the various spots in the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Much earlier, in 1187 when Saladin liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he noticed the disputes among the various Churches for control over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He thus placed the right of entrance to the church and its keys in the hands of two Muslim Palestinian families: the Joudeh clan who holds the keys, and the Nuseibeh family which has the rights to close and open the gates during the day.
Adeeb Jawad Joudeh al-Husseini, a Muslim, is the current Custodian of the Keys of the Holy Church. Born in 1964, Mr Joudeh is married and has four children. He speaks Arabic, English, and Hebrew; lives in Jerusalem and performs on a daily basis his duties as the custodian of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre and the holder of the seal of the Holy Tomb.
Watani talked to Mr Joudeh over the telephone.
“The Joudeh Family holds many other honourable jobs in Jerusalem,” Mr Joudeh said. “The President of the Islamic Museums, President of Muezzins in Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sponsors of Prophet Mousa’s [Moses’s] Endowment, and Sponsors of Khaski Sultan’s Endowment in the old city of Jerusalem, are all members of our clan.
“I possess more than 160 royal decrees, Firman, sealed by 27 sultans who ruled Jerusalem. These are acknowledged by the Churches, and also, I believe, by the State of Israel. My family is also entrusted as custodian to the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said.
Mr Joudeh is also the Holy Tomb Seal Holder. “The family puts its seal on the Holy Wax which seals the door of the Holy Sepulchre shut on the Saturday preceding the Easter Sunday of the Resurrection. This ceremony is essential before the Holy Light emerges from the closed and sealed tomb,” he said.
Watani asked Mr Joudeh for a description of the keys of the church.
Proudly, Mr Joudeh said the cast-iron key weighs 250 grammes and is 30 centimetres in length. “Actually,” he said, “our family was originally given two keys; one broke after centuries of use, but the second has been in use for 500 years. I have both.”
As to the seal, Mr Joudeh noted that according to the tradition that goes back to more than 750 years, the seal holds the name and the title of the current custodian.
Mr Joudeh described the door of the church. “The door is made of cypress wood held together with nuts and strengthened with internal metal slabs. It is five metres high and three metres wide, and is the only entrance. On the door there are ornamental metal knockers, and Arabic texts on the right side of the door, ‘Come in to the grace of the Lord; to the bright sky and churches’. Once the door opens there are 11 white and green marble columns with Corinthian capitals that lead into the church.”
The daily ritual followed by Mr Joudeh starts with leaving his home outside the walls of the Old City at 4:30am and heading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre “just as my father and grandfather used to do,” he said. There he meets Wajeeh Nuseibeh who knocks on the door for the priests inside to lower a wooden ladder from a porthole. Mr Nuseibeh climbs the ladder and opens the upper lock of the door, then descends and opens the lower one. He then hands the key over to Mr Joudeh. At 7:30pm, the ritual is reversed.
During Holy Week, each of the three major receives the key for one day. On Holy Thursday the key is held by the head of the Franciscan Monastery, on Good Friday by the Chief Dragoman of the Greek Orthodox Monastery, and on Holy Fire Saturday it is held by the Armenian Orthodox Church. The Custodian of the Keys has to stamp the Holy tomb before the Holy Fire emerges. All sects use the church, of course, but only these three may hold the key.
Watani asked Mr Joudeh what memories he cherished regarding the church. “I treasure many pleasant memories. I am proud to have met four popes at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pope John Paul II in 2000; Pope Benedict XVI in 2009; Pope Francis in 2014; and Pope Tawadros II in 2015. It was my duty to hand them the Church key, and was blessed to offer them precious souvenirs and give them a historical background on my family and the history of the Church key
“I really miss our beloved father Anba Abraham (1943 – 2015), the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan who was Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East. His Eminence was like a father or a dear friend; I deeply loved that great man.”
“Finally,” Watani asked, “Is there anything you would like to say to Egyptians?”
“Just to extend an invitation to them to come visit the Holy Land and stand side-by-side with the Palestinians who are struggling to survive here.
“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not just for Christians in Jerusalem, but for Christians all over the world.
“But more important,” he said, “What we pass to the next generations is not only the key, but the way to respect other religions.”
9 April 2017